KPBS AIRDATE: July 22, 1992
<MUSIC UP…”Amazing Journey”>
“Tommy” sure has been on an “Amazing Journey.” From the concert halls of London to the mainstage of the La Jolla Playhouse. And it only took twenty-three years!
But composer Pete Townshend of The Who thought it was time. And artistic director Des McAnuff of the Playhouse was more than ready. The result? A collaborative effort that is Townshend’s first formal tinkering with “Tommy,” the first authorized stage version of the first rock opera, and a technically terrific phantasmagoria that is far more nineties than sixties. But does anybody care? Not the opening night audience, on its feet and screaming. Not the L.A. students camped out for eight hours waiting to get into preview performances. Not the local patrons, clamoring for tickets.
But for us purists, a lot was lost in the journey. Spawned in 1969, “Tommy” was all about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. And spirituality. Well, you can kiss all that goodbye. Every provocative angle of the rock opera has its edge sawed off. It’s so politically correct, I’d call it a Quayle-ified success. It exalts family values, while merely alluding to all the horrors that made the young boy deaf, dumb and blind to begin with.
We watch his father kill his mother’s lover. We’re treated to all kinds of detail while his father is away at war (inexplicably, WWII instead of I). But we see none of the menace of Cousin Kevin’s physical abuse or Uncle Ernie’s sexual abuse of Tommy. The Acid Queen is just a gypsy. The religious awakening is gone. The false Messiah has bitten the dust. And the ending, with Tommy graciously turning back to his family and hugging Kevin and Ernie, is nothing short of smarmy.
Those complaints and disappointments off my chest, I can proceed to tell you that I had a fabulous time at “Tommy.” I thought the first act was brilliant. It’s a feast for all the senses, though for my sixties sensibilities, they could have cranked up the volume on the music. Things start to get murky in the second act, but nobody really cares by then.
The modern musical has become a thing of techno-wizardry and spectacle. And “Tommy” certainly delivers. But, unlike most of the European imports, it also has some great music. Singalong stuff you can’t get out of your head.
While there were earnest attempts here to match the vocal qualities on the original album, there wasn’t the bite of real rock. All the players were vocally arresting, although they were less convincing as actors. Tommy himself, as alter-ego to the young lifeless boy in the first act, is a wooden Peter Pan, flying through the air unnecessarily. But Michael Cerveris gains stature in Act Two, even as the flimsy plot-line slides downhill into sentimentality.
But what designer John Arnone does to and with the Playhouse stage, shifting scenes magically, fantastically, transforming the whole house into a pinball machine, having those WWII guys leap into the abyss as if jumping out of a fighter plane, as propellers whir before us and parachutes waft down a split-second later… Fabulous. The lighting and projections are marvelously ever-changing. The choreography is the least impressive artistic or technical contribution, but, as director, Des McAnuff has outdone himself. I thought “80 Days” was elaborate. This is so inventive, so dynamic, it knocks your knee-socks off.
But it is, remember, “Tommy Lite,” Tommy-tunes for the nineties. I’m sure it will go far. And before it does, it’s something you shouldn’t miss. It’s an event. It’s very exciting. But I can’t help thinking how much more electrifying it could’ve been, if it still had that hard-driving edge of the original. Tommy, can you hear me? <MUSIC UP…. “Tommy can you hear me?”>
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.